French-born American-Cuban essayist Anaïs Nin’s diaristic reflections on Havana reveal the nostalgic caprice that a city can wield – its atmospheric impulse-potential to “cure negative states of being,” as Guiliana Bruno terms it (211). Reminiscing on Havana entering her field of vision, her mood suddenly uncannily boosted, Nin’s diary entry notes that “with this, the desire to write becomes more intense, the joy of composition becomes ecstasy…” Writing in 1922, Anaïs Nin described the intimate fabrics of the cityscape expanding the physical geography via an emotive cultural atmospheric surfacing, creativity aroused and discharged.
“Disposed to think in this way, I eagerly went to Havana to approach aspects of the image of this city that I had encountered in political discourse, literary rendition, music, and visual representation. Havana has the kind of complex web of faded utopian texture, decayed urban fabric, and transformative metropolitan energy that speaks to me. It is a living memory theater, and the fabric of history has a vital material presence here.” wrote Guiliana Bruno, transported by Nin’s “other city” of ruins. In her book Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media, Bruno inquires how the place of materiality – the conditions of physical substance – are not bound to materiality themselves but, instead, to the substance of material relations and fabrics of contact.
Can the same be said for Harlem, or is such romantic whimsy relegated to the foreign spectator? Upon entering the second floor of the New Museum, one is besieged by Hunger Cradle (1996), an arachnean amalgam of variegated yarn, rope, and other found materials that fill the room, suspending a child’s crib, broken furniture, books, and tools in a lambent network of such contact points. Jamaican-born Nari Ward’s midcareer retrospective, “We the People,” surfaces the Manhattan textural semblance that he grew up in – both sentimentally and sorrowfully – using the found-object assemblage to summon political heights. I have always maintained that the most profound readymade installation artwork requires invoking a balanced political discourse with its sociocultural ambience – it ought neither submerge itself within pessimistic anguish nor simply appropriate for appropriation’s sake (pure visual charm, or embellishment). Betye Saar, David Hammons, and John Outterbridge’s activist-invigorated work, as part of the California Black Arts movement during the Watts uprising in 1965, professed such stature through the use of discarded materials, decoupage, and stitched assembly – Ward certainly falls within this lineage, though he is chiefly concerned with surface conditions and associational construction.
Furthermore, although Ward’s art practice certainly belongs to this aforementioned genealogy, it is also arguably galvanized by a more self-aware meditative stance, conscious of what Michael Gillespie calls the “idea of race as constitutive, cultural fiction” whereby art is “often determined exclusively by the social category of race or veracity claims about black existential life in very debilitating ways” (18). The contemporary found-object art practice has often slipped into a decidedly apolitical province, usurped by the commemorative ethos of collective memorial. For example, Ai Wewei’s Remembering (2009), a composition of 9,000 children’s backpacks, lapsed protest into the metonymic terrain – illuminating the besmirched and the buried event was touted as tantamount to political action. Ad repetition, however, this technique becomes impotent and politically barren.
Via a distinct approach to the found object assemblage, Nari Ward’s work achieves both the nostalgic musings of diaristic poetry while provoking political potency. Ward’s “We the People” mobilizes art as a cultural capital to examine economic disparity and to make corporeal the crumbled frames, broken glass, and discarded detris blanketing twinkling Harlem. Ward’s work uses fascination – a touch of magic and mishap –mediated by objects of the commonplace (and the commons) to rectify what Nick Mirzoeff terms the “right to look.”
Nick Mirzoeff offers us a conceptual framework to think with and against visuality by auditing today’s “permanent crisis of visuality” (475). According to Mirzoeff’s historiography, visuality’s first political domain was the slave plantation, where the monitored surveillance of the overseer functioned as the surrogate of sovereignty. This “sovereign surveillance” reinforced itself through violent punishment, sustaining a modern division of labor. Subsequently, from the late eighteenth century onwards, the act of visualizing became a hallmark of the modern general, as the battlefield became too extensive and complex for any one person to physically see. Thus, visuality became twofold: at once, the British imperial visuality of illumination brought light to darkness by means of the Word while, simultaneously, actively imagining the imperial subject as heroic. Poised against the chaos of the mob, visuality emerged where subject to leadership, presenting authority as self-evident, the “division of the sensible whereby domination imposes the sensible evidence of its legitimacy” (Rancière 1990, 17).
Mirzoeff’s “right to look” claims an autonomy that is diametrically opposed by the authority of visuality – the “right to look” is a process formed by a set of relations “combining information, imagination, and insight into a rendition of physical and psychic space” (476). According to Nicholas Mirzoeff, this “right to look” is not merely about seeing but, instead, begins at a personal level (the look into someone else’s eyes) and is mutual – hence, it is unpresentable. The “right to look” is purely phenomenological – it claims autonomy, not through individualism or voyeurism, and this claim is directed towards political subjectivity and collectivity. The “right to look” is a common look and a look of the commons; there is an exchange but no creation of a surplus; it is a look of vulnerability. The “right to look” is poised against visuality as a technique of war, the surveilling look that figures what Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics: the question of who shall live and who shall die as “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations” (2019, 14). Whereas Mbembe describes the intensification of visuality as digitized, necropolitical form (“the right to kill”) Nari Ward’s work provides us a means of observation, the “right to look” as in dissensus with the law of the gaze, contesting the “right to property in another person by insisting on the irreducible autonomy of all persons, prior to all law” (478). Hence, Ward’s proclamation of “We the People.”
If it is unpresentable, however, how exactly does Ward configure this “right to look”? Not only through transfiguration of the commonplace – as reflecting on Ai Weiwei’s work today reminds us, this is no longer satisfactory. Rather, Ward’s modus operandi is through transformation and monstrosity: Carpet Angel (1992), a looming idol of urban waste, is made of carpet remnants, plastic bags, plastic bottles, springs, wood screws and rope, provocatively pendulously suspended above the spectator’s gaze. Glory (2004), an oil barrel turned into a tanning bed, is an affirmation of post-Fordist labor’s mechanical conviction to mold bodies with pleasure, the injunction to “enjoy!” that Žižek has identified as the dominant ideology in the West today. The diabolical tanning bed’s rusted presence in the museum is sly reminder that aesthetic enjoyment and the enjoyment of speculation is overturned by the “entrepreneurship of the self” in everyday life.
Nari Ward’s installation work, in asserting the “right to look,” suggests a “profound leakage between the reductivism of visual regimes and the lives that are inscribed within them” (Nelson 20). Nowhere is this clearer than in Ward’s tortuous trails composed of bedraggled baby strollers. In Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (1995), Jacques Ranciére describes how political art “undoes, and then re-articulates, connections between signs and images, images and times, and signs and spaces,” contributing “to the constitution of a new landscape of the visible, the sayable, and the doable” (157). Ward’s Amazing Grace (1993), a room-sized installation composed from hundreds of castoff baby strollers, assembled for viewers to observe them while walking on a carpet of squelched fire hoses, reverberates with street art punctuality in an ethereal, hollow room lit with the ritual rites of a mausoleum. Ward collected these abandoned strollers during the pinnacle of the 1990s AIDs crisis, lamenting the drug epidemic disproportionately affecting Harlem residents.
Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, an expansive collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century (that focuses on the iron and glass shopping “arcades”) aligns the reader’s experiential engagement in the cityscape with textual passages resembling it in pace and structure – the passages of urban exhibition halls, arcades, and train stations are cloned in immaterial fashion. Ward coopts this literary praxis with visual art, experimenting with various critical geographies that affirm indigenous and sensory mapping through loss and empty signifiers. Audience members are guided by a trail of flattened fire hoses, stepping slowly and observationally, while the adjoining silent empty strollers are stacked in mountainous form. In Ward’s forlorn assemblage, we are far removed from the jeering cries of children and comforting maternal coos in bustling Harlem; yet, like a salvaged automobile yard, the cold, harrowing excess-alpine ridges, single wheels, and tattered baby-baskets are reminders of lost oral lore, worn broken bodies, crackled uptown buildings, vociferous soul and jazz, and the echoed mix of fulminating cries and tittering laughter. Ward’s artist statement reminds us that the 365 discarded baby strollers, deserted on the Harlem streets, were at once appropriated by the homeless population in order to transport their belongings – thus, we see a year’s accumulation of strollers enshrined in the mausoleum-museum, occupying their “third life.” The central walkway of flattened hoses – an uneven, thin, callous and stiff path – slows down the spectator’s stroll to a meager saunter. These strollers and fire hoses – collapsed vessels devoid of their once motile vigor – are now enshrined, emptied of mobility and transubstantiated as aesthetic objects.
In the background, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “Amazing Grace” croons, her powerful contralto voice sifting through the path. One of Ward’s father’s favorite songs, this tale of redemption and change dances above one’s ears. Harlem’s streets have always responded to collective trauma with hope – communal dance, song, and festivities boom and resound to this day. Just like a religious vessel, the absconded shrine of bewailment is uplifted, given a second communal purpose – our tempered steps, slowed to a pensive amble, resemble the mothers tirelessly toiling or the homeless envoys, strollers in hand. The hardened, thin trail requires stepping one by one – the trail produces its own conditional commandment, making it impossible to amble and dart through this installation. What Ward has brilliantly facilitated is the ability to create poetry out of crestfallen wreck, producing affect and politically directing it by bereaving museum-goers of their sovereignty – we are democratically distributed the unbridled “right to look,” politically galvanized while simultaneously commemoratory, neither side overwhelming the other.
Benjamin, Walter. Arcades Project. The Belknap Pr. of Harvard Univ. Pr., 2003.
Bruno, Giuliana. Surface Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Duke University Press, 2019.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. The Right to Look: a Counterhistory of Visuality. Duke University Press, 2011.
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Verso, 2011.